Murder By Ghostlight

Coming in October the third Dickens and Jones Mystery from the History Press.



Time’s Wraiths part 1: Mr Dickens Receives Some Visitors

In the run up to Christmas, The Mystery Press presents a six-part short Christmas story from the author of The Murder of Patience Brooke and Death at Hungerford Stairs, featuring writer Charles Dickens and his investigating partner Superintendent Sam Jones.

Part 1 – See more at:


First published for the CWA Crime Reading Month – June 2015

Writing Murder

The following external characters of the body are laid down as indicative of hanging … lividity and swelling of the face, especially of the lips, which appear distorted; the eyelids are swollen and of a bluish colour, the eyes red, projecting forwards and sometimes partially forced out of the orbital cavity; the tongue enlarged, livid…

For a moment I look up from the pages of Professor Alfred Swaine Taylor’s Medical Jurisprudence, the book referred to by Dorothy L. Sayers as ‘the backdoors to death’. That’s us, the murder writers sneaking through those backdoors to rifle through the cases to find our strangler, or poisoner, or gun-toting bandit, or the hand with the subtle dagger. We want the evidence. What are the symptoms of arsenic poisoning? At what range was the gun fired? When did rigor set in? Professor Taylor has all the answers.

The sky is perfectly blue and cloudless – an innocent sky – and I wonder when I became the sort of person who could read these grisly details with perfect equanimity. When? When I turned to crime, I suppose. Always on my mind, murder.

I look back at the book. Oh, here’s something I might find very useful – the case in 1829 of a boy hanged after his death – murder most foul. The villain sought to disguise his handiwork as suicide. Apt word, handiwork – our murderer had strangled the lad first. Cunning, but not as clever as he thought for the impressions of fingermarks were found on the neck. Whether the murderer was caught, Professor Taylor does not say. It is not his purpose to unmask murderers. Mine is. Justice will be done.

For justice must be done. It is what the crime reader wants. However beastly the crime, however cunning, cold-blooded or sadistic the murderer , however terrifying the narrative , the reader must close the last page in the certain knowledge that the murderer has been caught. Justice done means the restoration of order in a disorderly world. The detective may be a flawed human being; he or she may drink too much, may be hopeless in personal relationships, even in professional ones, but, comfortingly, he or she is, in the end, a force for good. ‘So shines a good deed in a naughty world.’

Back to Professor Taylor: I make notes, quite dispassionately, taking in the unfamiliar, analytical vocabulary of death: ecchymosis, effused coagula, cadaveric lividity, extravasation of blood…

And I think of a younger self, the girl who was promptly sick when the biology mistress came into the lab, casually swinging her clear plastic bag of bulls’ eyes – real ones, intended for dissection. Yes, this is the person who felt faint at the sight of blood, trembled at hospital doors and avoided the doctor’s surgery as if it were plague-stricken. A girl brought up with the utmost care as Lady Bracknell observes. Jane Austen was always my favourite writer. Case hardened, I am.

I wonder if my fellow crime writers shudder at all at the blood, the open wounds, the livid marks on the neck, the contorted cadaver of the poison victim. I suspect that they, as I am, are more interested in the placing of the comma or the semi-colon, the length of the sentence, the exact word to describe the colour of the blood – dried or fresh.

Ruby, carmine, scarlet, crimson, vermilion – which to choose for the fresh sanguineous effusion? Well let’s not overdo it! But, if we don’t shudder, we do want our readers to shudder, to recoil, perhaps avert their horrified eyes from the body in the library, in the traveller’s trunk, in the car boot, or dirty ditch, from the severed hand, foot or head – with twenty trenched gashes. Twenty? Why twenty, Mr Shakespeare? Dramatic effect, dear reader. Well, if he can …

But, we want them to pity, too, the poor mangled corpse, to see it through the compassionate eyes of our detectives. So, I’ll take the Taylor’s cool prose describing the boy done to death and I’ll fill in the details of his short, unhappy life. I’ll emphasise his innocence and the terror of that moment when he felt the murderer’s hands on his neck and fought for his breath. Not a dry eye in the library.

Two things made me shudder in the writing of my first two novels. I recorded the slashed throat of my first victim without a tremor, but the description of the rats which haunted Dickens in the blacking factory at Hungerford Stairs and the scores of dog-fighting rats in the famous King’s Head in London’s Compton Street produced a distinct queasiness. And I had to turn away from Dickens’s description of the serpents at Regent’s Park Zoo. Even in the proofreading, I had to skip those.

Not wholly hardened then. A.A. Milne in a dedication to his father in his only detective novel, The Red House Mystery, wrote: ‘Like all really nice people, you have a weakness for detective stories, and feel that there are not enough of them.’ And the writers are all really nice people, I’m certain, despite their fascination for the grim details of murder. My friends and family trust me – they eat at my table, spoon sugar into their tea, scoff cakes with white icing, quaff wine and regret the bitter taste – it’s probably corked, they observe sympathetically. Maybe.

And, as for Jane Austen – well, death came to Pemberley.

What’s Your Poison? Published March 2015

What’s Your Poison?

‘It is clear that the “favourite” poison with us is arsenic.’

So wrote Charles Dickens in Household Words in December 1851. Dickens argues for the enforcement of laws regulating the sale of medicines. Dickens refers to the Sale of Arsenic Bill passed in the last session of Parliament. The Bill stated that arsenic should not be sold unless in the presence of a witness; all sales must be recorded and signed for by the purchaser; no arsenic should be sold without being mixed with soot or indigo. But, says Dickens, the regulations are of no value since ‘nobody attends to them’. To prove his point he cites a number of grisly cases.

Mrs Barber and her paramour, Ingham, murdered her husband; Mrs Hathaway, landlady of the Fox beerhouse in Chipping Sodbury, murdered by her wastrel husband; Mrs Dearlove, poisoned by her servant girl, Ann Averment; Mr and Mrs Waddington who murdered her daughter for the sake of £7 due from the burial club and Sarah Chesham who poisoned her husband. Arsenic in every one.

Dickens quotes from Dr A.S. Taylor’s work Medical Jurisprudence. Dr Taylor cites ‘no less than 185 cases of poisoning, in England, by arsenic alone’ in the years 1837 – 1838. Dickens speculates that the number must be considerably higher by the time he is writing in 1851.

Dr A.S. Taylor – I knew that name. Where had I seen it? Ah, yes, in Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers. Superintendent Kirk, pondering the death of Noakes, seeks his answer in Taylor’s Medical Jurisprudence ‘that canon of uncanonical practice and back doors to death.’ There’s a metaphor for you –‘backdoors to death’ – the way in to knowledge about the murderer’s cunning methods.

Alfred Swaine Taylor (1806-1880) is called the father of British Forensic Medicine. His speciality was the investigation of poisoning, and he frequently appeared as a witness for the Crown. In 1856, he gave evidence at the inquest on the death of John Parsons Cook, poisoned by the notorious doctor, William Palmer, who is credited with fourteen or fifteen murders, including five of his own children, his brother, his mother-in-law, and his wife. Dickens said that Palmer was ‘the greatest villain that ever stood in the Old Bailey Dock.’ Palmer’s choice of poisons for Cook was antimony first then strychnine to finish him off.

Taylor’s works survive. His Elements of Medical Jurisprudence Volume 1 appeared in 1836. The most recent edition of Taylor’s Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence came out in 1984.

The effects of arsenic poisoning are minutely described in Taylor. Generally, the effects are felt after a time period of half an hour to an hour, though he cites one dramatic case in which the victim showed symptoms in the very act of eating a poisoned cake. I can’t help being tempted by the case of the victim who died from eating green blancmange – the cook mistook arsenite of copper for extract of spinach. A liberal dose of the mixture provided a rich emerald green colour to the blancmange. Tempting , I suppose, and a bit more appetising than pale pink or white. But, deadly.

Innocent cake, artless blancmange, even simple loaves of bread have been found, as Dr Taylor observes, to have been contaminated with this ‘noxious compound’. And if you survive your would-be murderer’s afternoon tea then beware the interior decoration. Those pleasant green walls! Wallpaper was often covered with arsenite of copper – look what happened to Napoleon. Paint, too. In 1867 Dickens was staying in an hotel in Glasgow. He wrote to his daughter, Mamie, that he was ‘taken so sick and faint that I had to leave the table’. It turned out that the passage leading to his room was being painted ‘with a most horrible mixture of white lead and arsenic’.

Suppose, however, that as the chronicler of Victorian murder, you wish to eschew the common vulgarity of arsenic. Dr Taylor is at hand to assist. There is sulphuric acid otherwise known as oil of vitriol – deadly, one would suppose, yet it was often added to strengthen gin! Given the amount of gin drunk in Victorian times, one wonders what the death rate was. However, like nitric acid or aqua fortis, the poison may be too easily identified by the hideous and immediate effects. Poisoning by sulphuric acid: violent burning pain so severe that the body may be contorted; in poisoning by nitric acid there is immediate violent vomiting and gaseous eructations – don’t ask! – and a bright yellow and swollen tongue. A dead giveaway, so to speak.

The case of William Palmer was the first in which the accusation was poisoning by strychnine, and Taylor had not found strychnine in Cook’s organs. However, the symptoms were there. Cook had died of tetanus and strychnine causes tetanic contraction of the muscles. Damning for Palmer was the fact that in his own book on toxology a marginal note in his own hand was found which read ‘Strychnine kills by causing tetanic fixing of the respiratory muscles’. Palmer seems to have been somewhat careless about leaving clues. A witness gave evidence that he purchased six grains of strychnine. Palmer had said that he had wanted to kill a dog. It must have been a large dog – half a grain can lead to death. In any case Palmer didn’t have a dog. I suppose it might have been dead. The witness testified that palmer had also bought two drachms of prussic acid and two drachms of Batley’s solution of opium – just in case the strychnine didn’t work, perhaps.

There was plenty of opium about the Victorian house. Of course, laudanum was widely used for aches and pains, and there are some wonderfully named concoctions to be bought over the counter, especially for fractious children: Godfrey’s Cordial, Dalby’s Carminative, Paregoric Elixir – it is to be noticed how the names disguise the potentially deadly presence of opium, though the grimly named Black Drop ought to have been a warning in itself. Taylor describes a case in which in 1837-1838 twelve children were reported to have been killed by this mixture.

Perhaps the writer may care for something equally deadly but more subtle, more secret. There is a section in Taylor entitled: Aloes, Colocynth, Gamboge, Jalap, Scammony – such poetic names. What about the ironic Hierapicra or Holy Bitters – distinctly unholy, I should think. The intriguing substance colchium comes from the innocently pastoral sounding plant meadow saffron. But don’t be fooled. Its bulbs are deadly. Wine of colchium was prescribed for rheumatism. In one case, the sufferer downed an ounce of the wine and was dead within three days. In another case, the victim took two ounces and was dead within 48 hours. The effects are rather hideous as Dr Taylor explains in copious detail: nausea, violent vomiting, heat and burning pain in the throat, great thirst, cold clammy skin, feeble pulse.

Horrible. But still … ‘Now that you have signed your will, dear husband, perhaps you would care for a glass of my home-made meadow saffron wine…’

Of course, poison may not be your preferred means of despatch. Never fear, Dr Taylor’s backdoors are open for access to the murder of your choice. I’m interested in garrotting just now. Dr Taylor provides:

‘The person attacked, if he should recover, is seldom able to identify an assailant – he is rendered immediately senseless and powerless: he can give no alarm, and he can offer no resistance. Recovery or death in such cases depends on the lapse of a few seconds …’

Just what I need. On the other hand, there is that green blancmange. Poison then – I don’t suppose it will matter to the victim.